San Diego Union Tribune

July 28, 2006

Marine wins over Senate committee with candid take on problems in Iraq

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – The man nominated to be the next Marine Corps commandant told a Senate committee yesterday that the decisions to disband the Iraqi army and to bar all members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party from holding government jobs left U.S. commanders with too few troops and duties for which they were not prepared.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway lived up to his reputation for being brutally candid. He won glowing praise from the committee leaders and a promise of easy confirmation.

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Responding to questions, Conway, who commanded the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in the initial assault of Operation Iraqi Freedom and in the later attempt to pacify volatile Anbar province, said he had “sufficient forces to win (Operation Iraqi Freedom) quickly.”

But, he continued, the military had planned on having the Iraqi army to help control the country after the collapse of Hussein's regime. “When the Iraqi army was not returned to duty, I was obligated to spread my forces,” Conway said. “I didn't have enough troops to cover the area assigned.”

Pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on what could have been done better in Iraq, Conway said there were many former Baath members holding government positions who “didn't have blood on their hands” and should have been left in their jobs.

When the military could not depend on those Iraqis to run the government services, “we had to resort to makeshift,” he added.

Those decisions by Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer, who was appointed by President Bush, disrupted the military's prewar planning for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, Conway said.

A number of recent analyses have concluded that the bloody insurgency that has killed more than 2,500 Americans and wounded more than 18,000 could have been better mitigated if there had been more security forces and more Iraqis involved in the days after Baghdad fell.

Conway, currently serving as operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believed it still was possible to begin reducing U.S. forces in Iraq, despite the upsurge in sectarian violence. He said it was essential the Iraqis know they have to assume responsibility for their security and that U.S. troops would leave.

Conway said he believed the investigation into the alleged murder by Camp Pendleton-based Marines of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha was nearly completed. A separate probe into how Marine commanders handled reports of that incident is being reviewed by Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commander.

Asked about the Marines' combat readiness, Conway said troops in Iraq are fully equipped and ready. “But that comes at a cost” of leaving units in the United States short of equipment, he added.

He repeated statements by the current commandant, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, that the Corps needed an extra $11 billion a year to replace or repair equipment lost or worn out in Iraq.

Conway also told the committee the Marines needed to keep their current level of 180,000 personnel to sustain the heavy pace of operations, instead of reverting to 175,000 as the Bush administration proposed.

Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., assured Conway of a quick confirmation and said Conway would take over the top Marine post in November. Hagee's four-year term normally would end in January, but the Marines want an early turnover so Conway can be prepared to present the next budget in February.

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